The Mitha Ram Hostel housed many of the country's brightest minds in their formative years. It will now serve to detain criminals.
No longer do its halls ring with the careless laughter of youth in their prime years. Its current occupiers, the Rangers, have a much more serious demeanour. For the latter, security trumps all. Once a hotbed of student activity, the hostel is now jealously guarded against all 'intruders'.
In 1994, the Heritage Foundation lobbied for a legislation to protect heritage sites in the city. Their efforts culminated in the promulgation of the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994. Mitha Ram Hostel was one of the 600 buildings declared to be protected under the Act.
Architect Yasmeen Lari was one of the members of the foundation at the time the law was passed. She remembers it as a huge achievement that was hoped to preserve the city's identity and heritage. Things quite haven't gone according to plan, though.
The Rangers took over the building a year after the Sindh government had sworn to protect it by law. It was around the same time that several other student hostels along with the Jinnah Courts fell under Rangers' occupation. Several times, they were requested to leave. Each time, an unlikely event delayed the move.
In 2009, the then interior minister Rehman Malik had announced that the Rangers would evacuate the premises in two months. Subsequently, the Sindh government had proclaimed it would be converted into a museum. That never came about.
Historian Kaleemullah Lashari claims he is the official custodian of the building by virtue of his position as the chairperson of the Sindh government's board of antiquities and physical heritage. He says he had started renovation work in 2010. "We had refurbished the second floor and were half done with the first floor when the Rangers denied us access to the building." He said the Rangers had cited security concerns in the wake of the Paposh blast to deny them entry into the building.
According to Lari, the hostel building was built between 1894 and 1901, to accommodate students of the DJ Science College and NED College. The building has a very unique structure, courtesy of its gabled ceiling, says Lashari. "It is one of only two such buildings in the city," he explained. The hostel is also unique in its planning as it has long and wide corridors that ensure its rooms are kept cooler. "Only one other building - the old barracks of the Revenue Department, also known as Barrack 79, has this feature."
Lari believes the hostel was possibly designed by architect James Strachan, who is credited with designing the Empress Market, Jinnah Courts and the Sindh Madrassah. It is a partial neo-gothic and neo-classical structure with the walls made of dressed Gizri stone. It was named after one of the main donors, Rao Bahadur Dewan Mitha Ram Gidumal. At the time of its inception, the premises comprised separate blocks or outhouses for messes, a mosque, separate bathrooms on the outside, a canteen several sports courts and a cricket ground. There were also independent quarters for the hostel staff and a laundry area for the students.
The main hostel building was a ground-plus-two-storey structure. The first and second floor had double bedrooms that accommodated two students in each room while the ground floor had single bedrooms, designated for final-year students.
At what price?
No student is allowed in anymore. The iron barriers, raised check posts and sandbags blocking the footpath are an ominous sign for 'commoners' to stay away. The architects and historians are most displeased. "At least leave the educational institutions alone," says Lari. For her, the detention facility will mean guns and armoured vehicles, which will have a negative impact on the community that has already seen its fair share of violence.
Her words are echoed by Lashari. "If these law enforcers are so insecure, why are they sitting in the middle of the city?" he questioned. First the Jinnah Courts were occupied, then the footpath outside, then the barriers were placed several feet into the road and now traffic is stopped several times a day for VIP persons to pass, he recalled. "What price are the citizens of Karachi paying for the protection of these security agencies who are so insecure themselves?" he questioned. The historian said that the building was contributed by the citizens of Karachi for the benefit of students. It was built by the Pinjrapur Education Welfare Trust, is a dedicated property and cannot be used for any other purpose.
"Instead of restoring such an important part of history, they have converted it into a jail," said former bureaucrat and member of the Endowment Fund Trust, Hamid Akhund. "On the one hand, you are not allowing the renovation or demolition of 'protected' buildings that are crumbling away, while on the other hand, you have declared such an important part of your heritage a sub-jail."
For Akhund, the Mitha Ram hostel, as well as the surrounding colleges and educational establishments, represent an important part of our heritage that must be protected at all costs. "In which civilised society is an educational institution used as a sub-jail?" he questioned.
Life at the hostel
Abdullah Mahesar, now 68, remembers clearly the six years he spent at the hostel. He says the time spent there helped shape his life. Mahesar spent two years at the DJ Science College between 1963 and 1965 and then four years at the NED Government Engineering College from 1965 to 1969. For all these years, the Mitha Ram Hostel was his home.
Mahesar remembers the hostel as a huge complex of high-standard planning with separate blocks allocated for various purposes. The main structure of the hostel was made of ‘ashlar stone walls’, supported by wooden roofs made from the best quality Burma teak plants and pitched truss ceilings with Mangalore tiles. Each room had a gallery and excellent cross ventilation, he says. “There was no concept of even a table fan, let alone ceiling fans,” he recalls. “Every student had to bring their own charpoy, a Surahi for water, a glass and bedding for themselves.” If they wished, they could acquire table lamps for themselves. “A student with a radio was a blessing for his friends and the group would assemble every Sunday night to listen to Indian songs on Radio Ceylon or Aakashwani.” There were plenty of other sources of entertainment near the hostel, the closest being the Lighthouse cinema, the Reo cinema, Rex cinema and the Bambino cinema. The hostel had several sports courts as well as common rooms on each floor for table tennis. Foreign students from Iran, Palestine, Jordan and other Arab countries used to live along with local students of the NED College, the DJ College and the Government Commerce College.
The messes were run by the students and used to function around the week, except Sunday nights when the students would eat outside. “The messes provided rich breakfasts and lunches on Sunday that still make my mouth water,” he says. And it was cheap too, with the highest monthly bill for a student grossing Rs70 to Rs80.
Officially theirs: Rangers given approval to use hostel as sub-jail
The Sindh government on Wednesday gave permission to the Rangers to use the Mitha Ram Hostel as a sub-jail. The decision was taken in response to a letter written by the Rangers DG Major General Bilal Akbar, who had asked the Sindh government to allocate a site where they could detain suspects for 90 days under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The decision was approved by the chief minister who sent an order to the home department.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2015.